Chanukah as an Environmentalists’ Debate

recycle-jewishThe other day I suggested that Chanukah might be considered a paradigmatic environmental holiday because God’s central miracle essentially entailed energy conservation: The Temple Menorah as Prius.

A teacher of mine (an Orthodox rabbi who moonlights as a professional photographer), said that he could accept that, but that he sees Chanukah as a demonstration of what can know and what we cannot know.  Some miracles are really miracles: they cannot be explained through the physical laws.  Chanukah, on this reading, confronts us with the stark limits of the human capacity for knowledge through science.

So is that environmental or anti-environmental?

The anti-environmental side could well argue that one thing that makes environmentalism powerful is scientific knowledge.  We know how the world works because of observation and testing.  We don’t just sit there and say, “Wow!  What a miracle!”: we try to understand it and explain it.  A holiday that rejects the use of science leads us into bizarre conclusions like the earth is 6,000 years old, or rejects climate change because God promised never to flood the world again.  A colleague once explained that she loved doing environmental law because she could work with scientists and discover real, hard-edged facts about the universe.

But the environmental side could counter that the lesson of Chanukah is environmental precisely because it presents the case that we can never fully understand nature.  The love of nature is compelling precisely because there will always be something unknowable.  I would imagine that many scientists become scientists not because they want to figure everything out, but because they realize that they never can figure everything out.  It is exploration, not discovery.

I suppose that most of us go back and forth between these two images of environmentalism.  I know that I certainly do.  Thus in Chanukah, we see not only these two sides of environmentalism, but two sides of human nature itself.

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Reader Comments

6 Replies to “Chanukah as an Environmentalists’ Debate”

  1. Minor quibble: the story of the lamp is one of energy efficiency, not energy conservation. The Maccabees didn’t decide to use less energy; they decided to use whatever they had and managed to get extra “energy services” out of that set amount of energy.

    Major quibble: The story of Hanukkah is one of religious fundamentalists, not energy policy. Amiright, bqrq?

  2. Minor quibble: the story of the lamp is one of energy efficiency, not energy conservation. The Maccabees didn’t decide to use less energy; they decided to use whatever they had and managed to get extra “energy services” out of that set amount of energy.

    Major quibble: The story of Hanukkah is one of religious fundamentalists, not energy policy. Amiright, bqrq?

  3. On the minor quibble: it’s not clear to me why increasing energy efficiency isn’t ABOUT energy conservation. By making our energy use more efficient, we conserve it. One could argue that making it more efficient wil not result in conservation because we will just use more energy, but there is little reason to believe that the Maccabees were pushing for a Turbo Menorah. And in fact, under Jewish law, it was illegal to have “bamot,” i.e. altars outside of the Jerusalem Temple.

    On the major quibble: As the Midrash says, the Torah has 70 faces. One could interpret it as being about the triumph of fundamentalism, but I would argue that that is not the BEST interpretation. Our job as contemporary Jews is to seek out the best interpretations, and not simply rely on plain meaning. Indeed, Judaism has always been anti-fundamentalist in the sense that it virtually always rejects plain meaning, or at least rejects plain meaning as anything close to the exclusive interpretation of the text. As it says in the Mishnah: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Avot 5:26). Don’t go over to the dark side, Jon!

  4. On the minor quibble: it’s not clear to me why increasing energy efficiency isn’t ABOUT energy conservation. By making our energy use more efficient, we conserve it. One could argue that making it more efficient wil not result in conservation because we will just use more energy, but there is little reason to believe that the Maccabees were pushing for a Turbo Menorah. And in fact, under Jewish law, it was illegal to have “bamot,” i.e. altars outside of the Jerusalem Temple.

    On the major quibble: As the Midrash says, the Torah has 70 faces. One could interpret it as being about the triumph of fundamentalism, but I would argue that that is not the BEST interpretation. Our job as contemporary Jews is to seek out the best interpretations, and not simply rely on plain meaning. Indeed, Judaism has always been anti-fundamentalist in the sense that it virtually always rejects plain meaning, or at least rejects plain meaning as anything close to the exclusive interpretation of the text. As it says in the Mishnah: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Avot 5:26). Don’t go over to the dark side, Jon!

  5. We can conserve energy by using it more efficiently (and most of my job involves pushing for this), but that isn’t what the Maccabees did; they tried to burn it all in one night, but, when that failed, kept burning it until it was gone. In any case, at least as I understand it, God gave them not an efficient lamp but rather an advanced fuel.

    As I don’t want to join the dark side of Torah interpretation, how about we agree that the story may have multiple meanings, including the plain one? Will that be okay with bqrq?

  6. We can conserve energy by using it more efficiently (and most of my job involves pushing for this), but that isn’t what the Maccabees did; they tried to burn it all in one night, but, when that failed, kept burning it until it was gone. In any case, at least as I understand it, God gave them not an efficient lamp but rather an advanced fuel.

    As I don’t want to join the dark side of Torah interpretation, how about we agree that the story may have multiple meanings, including the plain one? Will that be okay with bqrq?

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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